Kharkiv’s patchwork resistance

Without networks of civic activism, the war might be going very differently for Ukraine, writes Jen Stout.

Kharkiv’s musicians came together in a secret underground bunker for a fundraising gig, in aid of the city’s defence efforts.
JEN STOUT

Kharkiv, which lies just over 30 kilometres from Russia in northeast Ukraine has been shelled since the first hours of the invasion. Whole streets are devastated, left in ruins. Entire residential districts are burnt out.

But deep in a secret bunker under the city, Kharkiv’s best musicians and writers livestream a concert from their makeshift studio. The atmosphere is heady and happy, with an overwhelming sense of solidarity and purpose. This gig is just one small part of the society-wide effort to crowdfund for the army.

Enjoying the show are Oleg and his teenage son Maksim. Oleg, in normal times, is a judge. Now he’s a volunteer in the civil defence. On their army fatigues, they both wear a patch that reads ‘MRIYA’ and features a large white plane: their Kyiv battalion is named in honour of the world’s largest cargo plane which was destroyed by the Russian army in late February. In Ukrainianmriyameans ‘dream’. It reflects Ukraine’s dream of freedom, Oleg says earnestly.

Volunteer work proceeds at a frantic pace. A trendy cafe has become a hub for aid, each room stacked with sacks of rice and sugar. Nappies are piled up to the ceiling and there is a constant flow of volunteers and cars

The patches are eye-catching: stylized and colourful. The ones for the Kharkiv’s battalion feature the spectacular 1920s constructivist ‘Derzhprom’ building which somehow escaped with just broken windows when rockets hit the central square on 1 March.

A thin, softly-spoken young man explains with pride that he designed this patch. He is in fact responsible for many of the most used pro-Ukraine posters and patches. ‘This is my part in the war,’ he says, ‘my battleground’.

Elsewhere in the city, the volunteer work proceeds at a frantic pace. A trendy cafe has become a hub for aid, each room stacked with sacks of rice and sugar. Nappies are piled up to the ceiling and there is a constant flow of volunteers and cars. The big problem is fuel, as it is all over Ukraine. Bombs destroy fuel depots and supplies can’t get in.

Ivanna Skyba-Yakubova, in her thirties, has like many of her generation been helping the army and humanitarian efforts since Russia annexed Crimea and the war began in 2014, but now this is her whole life.I meet her at Kharkiv’s main fire station, a beautiful 1980s building full of Soviet murals and marble. It’s a big day: they are finally delivering the state-of-the-art equipment needed to find survivors under rubble. Rescuers have been trying to work without this kit for two and a half months, while Ivanna and her friends tried desperately to source it.

Through their charity Kharkiv With You, they eventually found a supplier. The kit being handed over this rainy morning came from the US, via Finland, and cost more than $10,000.Should the state be doing the work of getting equipment to emergency services and the army, rather than these exhausted volunteers?

‘No state in the world could be ready for the challenge we’re facing now,’ Ivanna says. ‘Of course there are “holes” – our task is to “patch” them. The state is us too.’

People like Ivanna have been building this massive network of civic activism and self-organization since the Maidan revolution in 2014. Without it, this war might be going very differently.

Correction: A previous version of this article named Oleg as Igor. The correct name is Oleg.